I’m chatting with writer Christopher Bernard today about his literary fiction, Voyage to a Phantom City.
Christopher Bernard is a writer, poet, editor and journalist living in San Francisco. His books include the novel A Spy in the Ruins; two books of stories, In the American Night and Dangerous Stories for Boys; and The Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs. His work has appeared in many publications, including cultural and arts journalism in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, and poetry and fiction in literary reviews in the U.S. and U.K. He has also written plays and an opera (libretto and score) that have been produced and radio broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry films have been screened in San Francisco and his poetry and fiction have been nominated for Puschcart Prizes. He is co-editor of Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org) and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos magazine (www.synchchaos.com). His new collection of poems, Chien Lunatique, will be released later this year.
Welcome, Christopher. Please tell us about your current release.Voyage to a Phantom City tells the story of the life, from early childhood to old age—from the 1980s until the middle of the 21st century—of an intelligent, sensitive and profoundly conflicted one-time left-wing political activist (and poet) named Ariel Hunter.
The novel begins and ends with Ariel on a small island off the coast of Maine of which he is the caretaker. Through a series of dreams, remembered images and scenes, he takes us through key periods of his tumultuous life; growing up in the Midwest, finding and then tragically losing the love of his life whom he meets in the Grand Tetons, studying in New York during 9/11, working for Blackwater in Iraq and most significantly, guiding a tragic and haunting expedition in the Sahara. The novel is a kind of philosophical parable about America and its loss of its moral moorings in a chaotic time.
What inspired you to write this book?
Several daydreams, which serve as central episodes in the story.
Excerpt from Voyage to a Phantom City:
The moan of the ferry dies away, and a breath of air passes in from the sea.
You hear a creak, an animal-like squeal, and feel the breeze and hear the sound of surf against the rocks. The kitchen backdoor pauses and swings, in a little dance, awkward as a child; you must have forgotten to latch it. It finally makes up its mind and stops, stuck on the threshold like a half-open book, and you turn back to the broken hurricane lamp and the unopened letter lying near it.
The taciturn ferryman, with a glower and shrug, had handed the dirty envelope to you, and you had tucked it into your pocket before walking up the path with the week’s supplies, past the rusting piles of old cars and pickup trucks, vans, the ancient SUV, that gagged the driveways of the vacated island compound.
The address was, unusually, handwritten, though in a penmanship you didn’t recognize. The letter leans, half-crushed, against the old notebook you’d been reading earlier, as you work on a chore you’ve been putting off for a week.
The wick bunches in your fingers. You hear the creak again, and the chilly air creeps up your arm. The wall calendar shifts on its hook, on its face a photograph of a pale young woman, a dark red rose perched above her ear, who reminds you of someone you knew many years ago . . . Then something gives way, and the wick slips up through the brass slit.
The letter, lifted by the breeze, slips to the scuffed floor.
Not now. You’ve had too much bad news in recent years. You can’t face any more right now.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I am currently working on a children’s story – my first – which I hope will become part of a series.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’m not sure I do, really – it’s such a vague designation. I’m suspicious of defining myself in any way – my name and my actions I feel should be enough. What matters to me is not what I am, but what I do. I enjoy certain forms of writing – though not all; certain of them are tedious at best; but I do enjoy using language (and have since I was a child) to invent in such a way as will give pleasure to my ideal reader – that curious figure who hovers over my shoulder following the words I scribble and scrawl in my hopeless penmanship or slipshod typing. In fact, if I had to define myself at all, I might call myself a watcher, a reader and a word whisperer, or would do so if that phrase did not carry other associations. I began publishing journalism regularly in my early twenties, so I guess I can say I have considered myself a professional writer since that time.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I make my living as an editor and editorial consultant, so I rarely have the luxury of writing fulltime. When I have a writing project, I try to put in one or two hours a day until it is complete, usually in the early morning, just after getting up, when I am still in a kind of dream space and my internal editor is asleep, or at least dreaming.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My friends are sometimes surprised by what I write, since it can seem very different from me. My writing is not so much an act of self-expression (though it can’t avoid being that) as it is a series of thought experiments where I put together words in order to visit places and personalities that are sometimes very different from what I have direct experience of (for example, I have never been to the Sahara; I based my descriptions of it from a combination of my experiences of other desert-like landscapes and much research, in books, photographs and films). I write not only about what I know (which would seem to me too limiting) but also about what I can imagine or conceive, and I try to make whatever it is I find there, littered about in the back alleys of my brain, as vivid as I am able to. I see myself as exploring the human condition in the richest and profoundest way I can. And this can take me to some very odd places.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer. But I am not sure I ever grew up!
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I feel very grateful to my readers. When we both see, and rejoice in, the spark that made me produce that peculiar design of words that stands there shimmering between us, I know I have done something worthwhile. I often feel that I am writing, not for everyone, but for one person alone. I just don’t know who that person is.